Culture clash and end-of-life issues collide in Lulu Wang’s scintillatingly heartfelt drama “based on an actual lie.”
Halfway through The Farewell, a character attempts to sum up the collectivist vs. individualistic philosophies that have long been seen as the central divide between Eastern and Western cultures: “You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.”
That’s well and good in the abstract, but it’s harder to parse in the specific—particularly when you yourself are part of both cultures, and particularly when those specifics involve life and death. How do you balance respecting a cultural tradition with questioning old-fashioned traditionalism? Can a big lie still be a good lie?
Those are just some of the questions at the heart of Lulu Wang’s deeply sensitive, bittersweetly funny Sundance hit, one of the best films of the year so far. Cheekily billed as being “based on an actual lie,” The Farewell fictionalizes an event from Wang’s own life, which she first recounted on an episode of This American Life.
Wang’s avatar is Billi (Awkwafina), an aimless New Yorker who learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Following a common Chinese custom, Billi’s family decide to hide the illness from Nai Nai, keeping the fact that she only has a few months to live as a burden to bear themselves. Instead, they pull together an impromptu wedding as an excuse for the far-flung family to gather together and secretly say goodbye.
Much of the comedy stems from the contrast between Nai Nai’s glee at her family’s reunion and their thinly veiled attempts to hide their ever-presented sadness. In fact, Billi’s overwhelmed father (Tzi Ma) and stoic mother (Diana Lin) initially instruct Billi not to attend the wedding at all, for fear that her expressive face will give the game away.
But once Billi makes her way to China, she turns out to be no worse than anyone else at publicly performing joy while privately processing grief. Working with cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, Wang fills her wide, meticulously composed frames with Nai Nai’s extended relations as they struggle to hold back tears while she happily fills their plates with delicious home-cooked meals. (This is not a film to see hungry.)
Can a big lie still be a good lie?
Stripping away the delightfully manic comedic energy she brought to Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina turns in an impressively layered, naturalistic lead performance. Billi is never fully comfortable with the ritual she’s participating in, but nor does she feel it’s right to break it either. Awkwafina serves as a conduit for the film’s observant, reflective, empathetic tone, establishing herself as a major dramatic talent in the process.
The only actor who threatens to steal the film from her is Zhao Shuzhen, whose Nai Nai provides the sparkling heart of The Farewell. She’s equal parts a maternal tour de force and a spritely young-at-heart gossip. Despite their generational and intercontinental divides, Billi and Nai Nai seem like true kindred spirits, and Zhao and Awkwafina craft a loving relationship that’s deeply lived in.
In both her writing and her filmmaking, what Wang evokes more than anything is a sense of nostalgia—not just for relationships but for places too. Visiting Nai Nai doubles as a chance for Billi to revisit the city she and her parents left behind when they moved to the United States when she was still very young. Billi finds her childhood hometown equal parts familiar and unrecognizable, which inspires quiet reflection on the shape her life has taken and how different it could have looked had her family stayed in China.
The Farewell is stronger for not attempting to answer any of the big questions it raises. Wang is more interested in capturing life as it is than providing didactic opinions about how it should be. Sentimental without slipping into melodrama and stylized without losing its naturalism, The Farewell is both deeply specific and beautifully universal. It’s a film for anyone who’s ever experienced the strange, surreal experience of being part of a family or the strange, surreal experience of growing up. Like Juno or The Big Sick, The Farewell is a crowdpleaser with a poignancy and intelligence that lingers.
The Farewell tells pleasing, well-intentioned lies in limited release July 12.